In yet another high quality Australian movie, Vincent Cassell is Gregori, a man who is sheltering people in his compound from a bleak outside world. This isn’t really a thriller, it is more of a drama/coming-of-age story as there is not a lot of action, rather the atmosphere is thick, and an overall feeling of dread looms over the entire film. While I feel a bit divided about the film, there is no denying that it is technically sound, with the locations, camerawork and soundtrack all of extremely high quality. So, why do I feel divided about this film then?
Firstly, I think I need to watch it again to truly judge it properly. When it ended, I admit to thinking, “what, that’s it?”
It was an unconscious reaction as many aspects of the narrative are not explained. Whether you will like this or not will boil down to whether you like this fresh approach to making a film, as it does come close to being too ambiguous for its own good. Personally I liked it, as it is unlike most movies, though it does smell ever so slightly of lazy writing. But the world within the film is so intriguing that it works, as long as the viewer is willing to participate in the experience. I cannot shake the feeling that this is a brilliant concept that is not fully explored, but the film’s universe is unforgettable; both the desolate outside world and within the compound, where Gregori’s word is law and children are encouraged to be creative, whether it includes face-painting or karaoke.
Oh, and Gregori also trains the children to become assassins.
The movie begins with Gregori at a hospital, talking to a troubled mother who is nursing her newborn child. Next we suddenly find ourselves in the safety of his compound eleven years later, where we see mothers and their children happy and in safety. They seem to obey Gregori’s word because of this. When young Alexander, who I assume was this baby at the beginning, starts to feel differently about what he is doing, what he has been trained to do, I really started wondering how it was going to end, as the relationship that forms between the two characters is much like that of a father and son.
We are teased when we see the intricately detailed outside world, as the film focuses more on how this world has affected Gregori, Alexander and the rest of the compounds’ residents. Most of the film’s run-time is spent inside this compound, which at first confused me, as the barren world that is created outside the compound’s walls is extremely striking (see below). I wondered why this world wasn’t explored further. A world in which Gregori has not only built a compound where his word rules, but also a world where he sends child assassins out to do his dirty work. However, I believe this was the intention, as the focus is on the daily lives of the people inside these walls, and on the way Gregori seems to be a husband to so many woman while also being a father figure to so many children. These children love living in the compound so much that they cannot see the violence that resides in Gregori’s heart. He is a flawed and complex man, whose personality is a direct result of the desolate outside world. Or, one could ask, is this only the way he perceives it?
Both Gregori and Alexander make for interesting character studies. Alex’s journey is a coming-of-age tale of sorts, but one very different to movies normally associated with that tag. He is the only one within the compound who begins to question Gregori and his methods as he matures before our eyes, becoming disobedient and asking questions. The obedience to Gregori by the rest of the residents though is one of many elements in this film that isn’t quite explained. It however provides more food for thought. Was Gregori delusional? Did he truly believe he was helping these mothers and newborn babies?
After all, there was a hospital in this desolate, abandoned looking world; that is where he found the struggling mothers and their newborn children for his compound. Again I speculate, are we seeing a skewed version of the world through Gregori’s eyes, and consequently, through Alexander’s eyes as well? Or is Gregori simply an sociopathic, manipulative bastard intent on maintaining total control over his compound and everyone within it? It is an interesting thought to ponder on, and is the main reason why I want to see this again very soon. Did he honestly believe that his compound and how he populated it was the only way?
Overall, the best way to describe this movie would be an ambiguous character study as well as a coming of age story. Ultimately, the sparse details given is for each viewer to interpret. Ambiguity reigns supreme here as gaps are not filled, events are often not explained. This approach is taken perhaps a little too far, but regardless, the film is gripping and full of emotional depth. Gregori is one of the better characters I’ve seen in a film for a while, as is Alexander. They both have complex character arcs, as does their father-son type relationship. This is certainly not a Friday night beer film as its ambiguous nature is sure to raise many intriguing questions for the viewer to chew on.
Do I think it was lazily written? Yes, to a small extent. The dialogue could have been better and there could have been more action, but ultimately I feel the filmmakers wanted viewers to think, to ponder, to contemplate on what they have just seen. In this regard it succeeds, but with a little more energy in the dialogue and with more meat on the bones of the story, this really could have been quite something. Vincent Cassell also is not at his best, he looks the part but is not as engaging as his character suggests. This could be due to the fact that he stepped in for Oscar Isaac, who pulled out just before shooting. In saying all this though, the entire movie looks and sounds incredible – meaning this is yet another young Aussie director who I shall be keeping my eyes on.